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The Ways of the World

Globe-Touring Chanticleer Turns Its Techniques to International Folk Music

September 25, 1996|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexican Baroque music was languishing on dusty forgotten manuscript pages until Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based male a cappella group, recorded a CD's worth for Teldec Classics in 1993. That album zoomed up the charts, taking public-radio audiences by storm along the way.

Its 1995 Teldec disc, "Sing We Christmas," topped at No. 6 on Billboard's classical chart.

The group--and Teldec--is hoping the same thing will happen in the spring, when the group releases an album of international folk music.

"We've always sung folk songs," said Chanticleer baritone Frank Albinder, speaking by phone from St. Paul, Minn., where the 12-member group has been recording the disc, its eighth for Teldec since signing with the label in 1994. Chanticleer had previously recorded nine discs on its own label and one for Harmonia Mundi.

"But the whole idea of what's a folk song is very complicated," Albinder said. "You and I would think it's just a song that people sing that's not written down anywhere. It's not always that way.

"In some countries, particularly in Latin America, there isn't much of a sung folk-music tradition. It's mostly instrumental. So writers there actually composed songs, but in the instrumental style. Half of the songs on the new disc have been composed, and we know who wrote them. That includes one by Stephen Foster.

"We're also doing a fascinating Cuban song by Tania Leon, "El Manisero" (The Peanut Vendor). She thought it would be fun to write a typical Cuban popular song. Cuba doesn't have any non-composed folk songs, or not many. She wrote a 12-part arrangement with four vocal parts.

"You get into trouble when you get into arrangements," he added. "By definition, folk songs are simple things. But this one is arranged in 12 parts. Each of us has a different line."

After completing the disc, the choir will go on an eight-city tour that includes stops Friday at El Camino College in Torrance on Friday and Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Fullerton. The Orange County date is sponsored by the Pacific Chorale.

It'll sing a mixed program that includes Renaissance and contemporary music and some of the folk songs it is recording.

For the album, "We have 26 songs on the list. . . . Some things will be cut. Some turned out to be longer. It never happened to us before that we have more music than will fit. We're bumping up around 80 minutes, a little too much to fit on a CD."

*

Chanticleer was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto. "It began with a group of friends studying Renaissance music," Albinder said. "Louis thought it would be fun to bring the music off the page by singing it. They did a concert, but they really couldn't do a whole program of Renaissance music in a high-school gym, so they added other rep.

"Louis also thought it would be nice to create a career path for people who sang Renaissance choral music. At the time there was no full-time employment for choral singers. I think we still are the only full-time professional choir, although what we do is different from what most people think choirs do. We have no conductor. We're small. We're the smallest allowable choir under the National Endowment for the Arts guidelines. That's pure coincidence. If we were smaller, we'd probably be categorized as chamber music."

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Albinder, 37, joined the group in 1988. Before that the native Angeleno had taught voice in North Carolina and had sung with Boston Camerata. Ages of the other singers range from 26 "to fortysomething."

"Some of the guys are married," Albinder said. "Well, actually, we just went through a change in membership. The married guy left and took his wife and child. Now there's only one guy with a son. It's very difficult for guys who have wives or partners. I have cats.

"We spend 140 days on the road. I made the mistake of counting them up one day. It is a lot of time on the road. It wears out many people. We've had more than 65 men in the group since it was formed.

"For me, not having a regular schedule is one of the great things in the job. It's nice not to do same thing every day. What other job gives you a chance to visit a dozen countries and all 50 states of the union?"

"People have asked why we only have men. The original idea was to try to reproduce a choir that might have sung Renaissance religious music. At that time, you couldn't mix men and women singers. In fact, men and boys sang in public. There were women's choirs, but mostly cloistered nuns. The high parts were sung by boys or men.

"We have six countertenors. That seems like a lot, but most choral music is in four parts. We have three sopranos, three altos, three tenors and three bases. But everyone sings more than one part. All the countertenors can sing bass. I can sing countertenor, but it's not too nice."

* Chanticleer will sing Friday in Marsee Auditorium, South Bay Center for the Arts, El Camino College, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance. 8 p.m. $15-$18. (800) 832-2787. Also Saturday at the First United Methodist Church, 111 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton. 8 p.m. $20-$25. (714) 662-2345.

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